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Chief Citty claims civil asset forfeiture process working even when cash, property wrongfully taken

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Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty.
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Former DoJ official says asset forfeiture evolved into corrupt system

OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty contends the state’s civil asset forfeiture system is working as planned, even when cash or other property is wrongfully confiscated.

“It’s not like we seize cash and it’s ours,” he said in an interview with Red Dirt Report. “There is due process and we go through the courts. A judge has to determine if the state can even take the money on the back end.”

The civil asset forfeiture issue began making headlines in May when state Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-Oklahoma City) introduced a legislative proposal that would require a criminal conviction before a person’s personal property would be forfeited to law enforcement agencies. The measure also would require a higher burden of proof on prosecutors to show the seized property was used in the commission of a crime. Currently, cash and property can be taken by police agencies if they think the items have been used in a crime or were located in the proximity of evidence from an alleged crime.

“A lot of times you don’t get a criminal conviction,” Citty said. “What you end up doing is giving $400,000 or $500,000 back to the cartel.”

Loveless and others who support the reform effort contend law enforcement agencies across Oklahoma are policing for profit by seizing cash during traffic stops and then allowing suspected or known drug dealers to leave the scene. Citty defended that practice, claiming drug cartels value money more than the drugs they send into the United States.

“They have to have the capital and they care less about the drugs than the money. All we can do is hope to disrupt these organizations,” he said. “I’ve been doing this 38 years and usually the large sums of cash we confiscate is drug money.”

At the same time, Citty said the transparent way of dealing with asset forfeiture typically returns cash and property to owners if wrongfully seized. According to a handful of cases examined by Red Dirt Report, he may be right.

No drugs

In 2010, a Norman police officer stopped the driver of a 2002 Acura for speeding. The officer noticed several air fresheners and an odor he believed was marijuana. The driver, identified only as Mr. Palomares, said he and his friend, Mr. Sanchez, were traveling from Kansas City to Houston to buy a vehicle. Drug dogs were brought to the scene and alerted to the car, leading to a search of the vehicle.

The officer said he discovered what he thought was marijuana residue in the car, but not seize the residue, take photos or samples. The officer seized $18,007 in cash from the vehicle and the suspects were allowed to leave the scene. Court records do not indicate if the men were charged with a crime or cited for a traffic offense.

About a month later, Cleveland County prosecutors filed a motion for forfeiture of the money. However, the trial court dismissed the request and ordered the money returned. The state appealed the decision but lost. The appellate court found the police failed to demonstrate there was marijuana in the car or that the money was in close proximity to a forfeitable substance such as marijuana.

Lack of consent

Years earlier in 1989, an Oklahoma highway patrol trooper violated basic civil rights by failing to obtain consent to search a vehicle, which contained bundles of cash totaling $30,000. The money was discovered in suitcases that were in the trunk. The driver and a passenger were arrested and taken to jail and the vehicle was taken back to OHP headquarters. Officers, again acting without a search warrant, searched the car again after a drug alerted. They found more cash in the vehicle, but no drugs or paraphernalia was found in the car or on the men. The total amount of cash discovered in the car was $1.35 million.

The two men were neither prosecuted for drug-related crimes nor did they have any prior drug-related convictions. Prosecutors were forced to return the money to the two men because they could not link it to drugs.

Hurting the innocent

Although property and cash is returned in some cases, Loveless contends innocent owners shouldn’t be burdened with hiring an attorney or being forced to miss work in order to fight the forfeiture petition.

“The first thing that comes to mind is they’re admitting abuse happens since property is being returned. Second, when it comes to an innocent person, the government doesn’t deserve the right to keep that property for however long the process takes,” he said. “I don’t believe law-abiding citizens should have to petition its government to get their stuff back.”

Loveless contends his reform measure is meant to capture the “bad guys” and protect innocent owners. He said he’s still waiting on law enforcement officials to present constructive reform ideas.

“Other than just saying the bill is bad, I’ve heard nothing from law enforcement whatsoever,” he said.

One suggestion from a lawyer at Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office focused on criminal charges being filed in a timely manner.

“The idea was the government should return all property unless charges are filed within 30 days,” Loveless said. “If you’re not going after them for drug trafficking, then we should give the stuff back.”

Two years ago, a district attorney in western Oklahoma returned more than $21,000 in three cases that did not include arrests or criminal charges. DA Jason Hicks and his drug task force hired a Guthrie company known as Desert Snow, LLC, to assist in drug interdiction efforts in return for 25 percent of all forfeited proceeds from traffic stops involving its trainers.

The arrangement led to cases where money was seized for invalid reasons, critics said. Hicks ended his connection with the company after a judge became irate over the arrangement.

Brad Cates, a former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Office under President Ronald Reagan, co-authored a recent op-ed in The Washington Post decrying the current state of asset forfeiture and the abuses that arose over the years. Cates also spoke via Skype during Loveless’ panel discussion on his reform measure last week at the state Capitol.

“Asset forfeiture was conceived as a way to cut into the profit motive that fueled rampant drug trafficking by cartels and other criminal enterprises, in order to fight the social evils of drug dealing and abuse,” he wrote. “Over time, however, the tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits.”

Cates claims asset forfeiture led to money laundering laws that expanded the number of crimes that could be prosecuted, eventually leading to more than 200 crimes that were included in the forfeiture scheme.

“Civil asset forfeiture and money laundering laws are gross perversions of the status of government amid a free citizenry,” Cates wrote in the op-ed. “The individual is the font of sovereignty in our constitutional republic, and it is unacceptable that a citizen should have to ‘prove’ anything to the government. If the government has probable cause of a violation of the law, then let a warrant be issue. And if the government has proof beyond a reasonable doubt of guilt, let that guilt be proclaimed by 12 peers.”

Read the entire op-ed from The Washington Post.

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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